Joe Davidson

Malik Pope fueled by bad breaks, a lost friend and milk. He seeks NBA after NCAAs

San Diego State forward Malik Pope, left, has scored more points than any Aztecs player in Mountain West Conference Tournament history.
San Diego State forward Malik Pope, left, has scored more points than any Aztecs player in Mountain West Conference Tournament history. The Associated Press

If it were socially acceptable and didn't draw curious expressions, Malik Pope might consider it: Lugging a gallon of milk in a backpack and chugging it several times a day. In class, the library, the gym – anywhere.

The San Diego State senior big man hears it so often that his first name might as well just be Milk and not Malik. Milk does a body good, the saying goes, and Pope is doing his best to fill his long and lithe 6-foot-10 frame with the calcium builder.

"I've been taking good care of myself, for sure," Pope said by phone with a laugh this week as he steers the Aztecs into the NCAA Tournament as a dark horse No. 11 seed in the West Regional. The Aztecs on Thursday open against No. 6-seeded Houston in Wichita, Kan.

"I'm always working on my eating habits, like a diet and a schedule," Pope continued. "I have a fast metabolism and I try to stuff my face with as many calories as I can. It's a good problem to have. I can really put away a lot of pasta with extra chicken or sausage, and I do the double cheeseburgers. And I'm a seafood kind of guy. And milk shakes and protein shakes."

When Pope was a fast-rising national recruit in high school in Sacramento, doctors pestered him about not drinking enough milk. So did his brothers, his mother and his coaches, and for good reason: he was brittle.

"We'd say, 'You're not drinking that milk!'" said Lindsey Ferrell, Pope's coach at Burbank during his early high school years before transferring to Laguna Creek.

In 2012, Pope went up for a dunk during drills at a nearby middle school, but he never made it. His tibia cracked just below his left knee on the way up, the force of his ascent too great for his still-maturing growth plates. After months of grueling rehabilitation, Pope's senior season was also a wash. During an early fall Elite 50 prospect showcase, he suffered the same fate – same leg, same grisly results, same sort of exhausting rehabilitation.

But Pope was such an intriguing prospect that San Diego State remained firm on its scholarship offer. He has produced a four-year career that was punctuated with a rousing standing ovation during senior night. Pope was touched that fans stuck by him after he was mentioned in national reports for allegedly receiving $1,400 of improper benefits as the FBI has investigated colleges across the country. He was cleared.

"It was definitely frustrating," Pope said. "I had to roll with the punches. We went through a process and everything's OK. It was great to be back on the floor."

Pope's career 152 points in Mountain West Tournament games are the most for any Aztec in tournament history. For this season, he is averaging 12.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocked shots while shooting 52.1 percent from the floor, including 36.8 percent from 3-point range.

And he can get up and dunk without fear of breaking his leg again. Those days are gone, though the pain of yesteryear serves as a reminder of how fragile this can be.

"I put that frustration of those leg breaks on my shoulders and I use it in a productive way," Pope said. "Situations like now in the NCAA Tournament, where it's win or go home, I have that in the back of my head. Something that severe, with my leg, and to be able to get out of that? Thank God. It was the man above who helped me get to this point. Amazing."

Pope's good standing and work ethic earned him team captain accolades by his teammates. He earned all-conference honors, as voted by coaches. New Mexico coach Paul Weir said during the conference tournament that Pope is a unique talent.

“To me, just watching Pope move around, I think he’s the best center in the league,” Weir said. “I had him as a first team all-conference player. What some other people see, they must know a lot more than I do. I just think he’s a very influential player on both ends of the floor.”

Pope's versatility makes him a difficult matchup. That's always been the case. It took awhile for his body to catch up to his growth. He went from 6-foot-3 as a sophomore in high school to 6-8 as a junior, then to 6-10 as he entered college.

"I remember telling Malik that once he figures it out, he'll be alright, and he's figured it out," said Ferrell, his Burbank coach. "I remember his brothers telling me, 'Wait until you see Malik play!' 'OK, we'll see.' Then I saw him and it was, 'Wow! Wow!' He was raw but talented. He wanted to learn. His eyes were wide open.

"He had a friend, Clifford Lyles, who would work with him in the gym, two peas in a pod. The kid was never afraid to work."

Lyles died in a auto accident two years ago. That pain sticks with Pope. Asked if Lyles is with him in spirit, Pope said, "Oh yeah! Every time I pound my chest in the game, it's for that man. But I'm sure he's smiling right about now."

Pope aspires to play well beyond the NCAA Tournament. He is on the NBA draft radar. He has range and can handle the ball. He has a turnaround jumper and a hook shot. He can run and block shots.

Ferrell sized up his former pupil this way, "He's got that Kevin Durant look – long and dangerous."

Pope tossed his name into the NBA draft pool after his sophomore and junior seasons without signing with an agent and risking a return to to the Aztecs. Scouts offered assessments and he returned to school without any regret.

Pope said he "raises the bar" on his own expectations. He's always chasing the next goal, never satisfied, always hungry.

"Looking into the NBA, that was me raising my bar again," Pope said. "You learn more and more with each process, what I need to improve on. Scouts were brutally honest. I needed honesty. They told me there was a lot of room to grow. I need to get stronger, to get bigger. It's reiteration of what I need to do. Be more consistent, all the little things."

Similar things were said of Sacramento-area natives Marquese Chriss and DJ Wilson. Each of those long, lanky and active local products emerged as first-round picks in recent years, Chriss of Pleasant Grove High and Washington going to the Phoenix Suns via a trade with the Kings, and Wilson of Capital Christian and Michigan to now with the Milwaukee Bucks.

"Those are my guys!" Pope said. "It's inspiring to me to see them make it, for sure."

Pope has a believer in San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher.

"Malik has a chance to play at the next level because of the work he’s putting in," he said. "He just keeps getting better.”

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